Acknowledge importance of community on college campuses
A brooding and overcast national atmosphere hangs over Brandeis. In the past couple of weeks, Brandeis students have confronted the prospect that their friends and family may face deportation, in addition to the threat of nuclear war with North Korea. The events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in particular, have charged the environment. The sight of Confederate flags, white, pointed hoods and swastikas openly and proudly displayed was terrifying. So, too, were the videos of ordinary-looking men, dressed in polos and khakis, chanting, “blood and soil” and, “Jews will not replace us” at the University of Virginia — as well as a president who fails to adequately condemn them. As the semester gets underway, we must all rise to the challenge of supporting one another, furthering meaningful conversation and seeking to expel ignorance and hate from our University.
The Brandeis campus is often a refuge from the dramatic headlines and images that grace the front page of the New York Times and cycle through CNN. Yet spillover from Charlottesville has gone from local, to regional, to national. With the aftermath of these events, many of us were shocked when white supremacists attended a free speech rally 30 minutes from campus at the Boston Common. Then, only a couple days before the start of orientation, the University was shaken by a bomb threat. Why Brandeis was targeted is not clear, according to an email sent by University President Ronald Liebowitz. It follows, however, in a line of academic institutions to receive these sorts of threats in the past few years. Though other, non-Jewish, institutions have been targeted, there is still a lingering notion of anti-Semitism. Sadly, this is all part of the new normal in America — one in which people are scared of the future and fear penetrates the safe haven created on campus.
Part of me knows that it is irrational to feel that America is descending into a time of darkness, or that the moral arc of the universe has somehow been bent toward injustice by President Donald Trump. America has suffered through hundreds of years of injustice far worse than Trump and overcome it. Yet there is an inescapable feeling of uncertainty and insecurity which has been ever-present since November. The rules have been thrown out and the board flipped. The usually steady hand of leadership is spinning back and forth like a confused compass needle. It is necessary to recognize that this feeling of terror is valid and legitimate. The images from Charlottesville rightfully evoke deeply entrenched societal memories, such as Nazi Germany and the Confederacy.
Students ought to feel discomfort from time to time; growth depends on the capacity of students to push their boundaries and propel themselves into terra incognita. Yet it is fundamental to that capacity for bravery that students feel safe pressing against the previous limits of their comfort zones. When the president contributes to this fear, rather than reassuring those most at risk, the onus falls on the University and the Brandeis community to support one another.
To its credit, the University has done a remarkable job at this in many respects. As an Orientation Leader, I spent seven hours waiting in Gosman as the police searched campus, building by building, for a bomb. The Department of Community Living staff was incredibly kind and attentive; they constantly checked in with us and kept us in high spirits while the Sodexo staff managed to transport food for hundreds of people to Gosman on extremely short notice. While there were errors with the efficacy of the alert system for students off-campus, by and large, those who I talked to in Gosman felt secure. The next day, Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment Andrew Flagel distributed hundreds of flyers, which are now peppered across campus, to the Orientation Leaders and Community Advisors. They carry slogans such as, “Hate has no home here” and, “Love - Inclusion - Trust.” These posters are a powerful way to respond to an enemy we can neither directly see nor defeat. They are a message to the world that we will not be intimidated by threats of violence, but also a reassuring note to both the students returning to campus and those stepping onto it for the first time that Brandeis is a safe space for them.
I also had the opportunity to attend the counter-protest in Boston a couple of weeks ago, aiming to demonstrate against the white supremacists who had assembled on the Common. , 40,000 people attended the counter-protest and among those were several faces I recognized from Brandeis. We marched for two hours across Boston to the Statehouse, where we vastly outnumbered the approximately 30 people attending a “free-speech” rally. To paraphrase a friend of mine: You know that obviously most people find Nazism, racism and hate to be repugnant, but to actually have tens of thousands of them surround you is remarkably cathartic, referencing the few white supremacists.
This feeling of community and validation is critical if Brandeis is to expel hate in all its forms. The truth is that anti-Blackness and white supremacy are rarely overt like at Charlottesville. They manifest themselves on this campus in far more insidious ways; I learned firsthand what these experiences can look like this semester. Social Justice Pre-Orientation, or SOJO, is a program in which incoming students come to campus two days early for activities which challenge and inform their sense of identity and obligation. As an Orientation Leader for the program, I facilitated conversations and exercises such as “Break Down the Wall,” in which participants each write a word or phrase on the board which they never want to hear again. Then, as the students feel compelled to speak, one by one they explain their choice. Students outed themselves, talked about experiences with mental health and racism and sobbed as they talked about stereotypes. It was a space in which people felt comfortable being vulnerable with one another and educated each other — a space in which people felt safe being brave.
SOJO sets the bar each year for what campus conversation and discourse can, and ought to, look like. This year’s required reading for incoming students was “Citizen,” by Claudia Rankine, a book of poems and vignettes about microaggressions and daily examples of racism. It could not have been a better choice. The incoming students have not experienced Ford Hall 2015 and some may be coming from communities that are not diverse and that are often exclusionary — much like I did at the start of my first year. “Citizen” was powerful, moving and extremely educational. It pushed students to have meaningful conversations in their orientation groups and encouraged Orientation Leaders like myself to broach difficult topics with them. In this climate, we must make sure that students have platforms and events to talk among themselves and learn from each other.
When the United States fails to live up to its promise, we must ensure that Brandeis does. Much like our country, this University was founded on radical ideals and notions of equality. As long as the national atmosphere remains poisonous and inhospitable to real discourse, real conversations and real change, Brandeis, both in the sense of the administration and the community of students, cannot settle for simply making our new and returning students feel accepted — we must make them feel loved and welcomed.